Saturday, March 4, 2017

The trials of Christ - Psalm 119 (Gradual Psalm No 1)

Coter Mocking of Christ
The first group of five Gradual psalms is offered devotionally for the souls in purgatory.

It invites us to remember that the dwellers in this world - and also those in purgatory - are still living in exile from our true home, and to cultivate a longing for our heavenly home.   It teaches us that a key step for our spiritual progress is to detach ourselves from earthly things and remember that our true hope is not the extension of this life, but to dwell in heaven.

The Gradual psalms are often conceptualised as representing each of the steps of the temple, steps on the staircase to the heavenly temple.  Cassiodorus summarises this first step as teaching us the "loathing of the world, after which there is haste to attain zeal for all the virtues".  A more positive way of putting it lies in the Gospel injunction to be in the world but not of it, to cultivate the realisation that our true home is heaven, and we must actively set out on the journey towards it (verse 5).

Psalm 119: Ad Dominum cum tribularer clamavi
 Ad Dóminum cum tribulárer clamávi: * et exaudívit me.
In my trouble I cried to the Lord: and he heard me.
2  Dómine, líbera ánimam meam a lábiis iníquis, * et a lingua dolósa.
2 O Lord, deliver my soul from wicked lips, and a deceitful tongue.
3  Quid detur tibi, aut quid apponátur tibi * ad linguam dolósam?
3 What shall be given to you, or what shall be added to you, to a deceitful tongue?
4  Sagíttæ poténtis acútæ, * cum carbónibus desolatóriis
4 The sharp arrows of the mighty, with coals that lay waste.
5  Heu mihi, quia incolátus meus prolongátus est: habitávi cum habitántibus Cedar: * multum íncola fuit ánima mea.
5 Woe is me, that my sojourning is prolonged! I have dwelt with the inhabitants of Cedar: 6 My soul has been long a sojourner.
6  Cum his, qui odérunt pacem, eram pacíficus: * cum loquébar illis, impugnábant me gratis.
7 With them that hated peace I was peaceable: when I spoke to them they fought against me without cause.

Liturgical context

The first of the Gradual psalms, Psalm 119 features in many different liturgical contexts.  In the older forms of the Roman Office it is said on Monday at Vespers.  It is used in the Vespers of the Office of the Dead.  And it is said at Vespers during the Sacred Triduum.

In the Benedictine Office it is the first psalm of Terce from Tuesday to Saturday.  Why that hour?  In St John's Gospel, Terce, the third hour, is associated with Christ's appearances before Herod and Pilate; he ascends the cross at around the sixth hour: St Augustine tells us that at the third hour, the crowd crucified Jesus with their tongues, as they called out their condemnations.

There are several Patristic references to these events as the reason for prayer at the third hour, and I think a strong case can be made that St Benedict's psalm selection is intended to give the hour a programmatic focus.

On Sunday after all, the sections of Psalm 118 set for Terce also provide extensive references to 'the snares of sinners' and the 'malice of evil men', and to the humbling of the speaker; in the first stanza of the hour, the speaker says he 'stands unafraid to observe your commandments'.  And the final stanza set for Sunday Terce refers to 'the place of my pilgrimage', making a nice link to this psalm's decision to set out on the journey.

Monday Terce similarly echoes these sentiments: the speaker states that 'the wicked are laying snares for me'; it refers again to those lying tongues, saying, 'All the sinners of the world I regard as liars'.  Above all, it includes the 'Suscipe' verse used in the monastic profession ceremony, where the monk agrees to 'share by patience in the sufferings of Christ' (Prologue to the Rule of St Benedict).

In the world but not of it

In this light, the psalm has an ongoing relevance to us: each time we say it, we are invited to start afresh on our pilgrimage towards our true home.  It also reminds us to keep Christ in front of us as our model of humility in conducting ourselves in the face of our enemies and those who surround us in a world increasingly hostile to the faith.

Patrick Reardon, in Christ in the Psalms (Consiliar Press, 2011), suggests that 1 Peter is essentially a commentary on this psalm.  Addressed to the dispersed 'exile' Christians, St Peter calls the members of the Church 'sojourners'  - strangers and pilgrims - in this world (1:1; 1:6; 2:11) who must endure the reproaches of outsiders, silencing them with our good deeds (2:15).

St Peter urges us to return peace for enmity (verse 6), following the model of Christ:
"For unto this are you called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving you an example that you should follow his steps.  Who did no sin, neither was guile found in his mouth. Who, when he was reviled, did not revile: when he suffered, he threatened not: but delivered himself to him that judged him unjustly." (2:21-23)
But my current favourite take on the psalm is that of Josh Moody in his book Journey to Joy The psalms of Ascent (Crossway, 2013).  He is a protestant writer, and his take on it doesn't make much allusion to the tradition.

But I think he captures the sense of the psalm very nicely when he discusses the profound effects on us of that lying tongue: when people say things that are unkind, nasty and untrue about us our wounds can be just as real as a physical wound, particularly when we encounter that funny change in atmosphere when you walk into a room, that subtle change in attitude that results from slander being spread about us.  He sees in the psalm the sense of helplessness we feel when we don't know exactly what has been said, or how to counter it.

Moody's solution to that feeling of being trapped, of not knowing how to get out of the box is to suggest that we pray; tell our pain to God using this psalm and place ourselves in his hands.  He points to the need for us to embark on 'the journey of  forgiveness'.

That is all helpful advice, but I think we should add to this that instead of trying to conform to the world's standards and expect justice and truth to prevail in this life, we have to accept the way of the Cross.  In the end, this life is but a short interval in the face of eternity, and the only journey that really counts is the journey towards the heavenly Jerusalem.

We should always remember that we are never truly alone on this journey.  We are following in the footsteps of Christ as we make this spiritual ascent, and aided by the grace flowing from his sacred wounds.   And through our prayers we bring with us the souls in purgatory, who in turn will pray for us once they reach the promised land.

I've previously provided notes on this psalm in the context of the Office of the Dead.

You can also find more detailed notes on it through the following links:

Introduction to Psalm 119
Notes on the verses

Or, you can go on to Psalm 120.

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